The charming town of Vernal and the surrounding areas are famously known as Dinosaurland. Travelers come from far and wide to explore the evidence left by dinosaurs of their existence. That includes piles of fossils, bones, footprints, and teeth.
I went with my husband and two children. To say we had a blast is an unequivocal understatement. Vernal has something for everyone, and most activities are free or cheap.
Depending on what you want to do, you could explore Dinosaurland in a few hours or over the course of several days. I recommend staying at least a day and indulging in everything it has to offer. Slow tourism is good for the body and allows you to mingle with the locals.
Dinosaur Fossils, Petroglyphs, and Fun at the River
On day one, visit the Dinosaur National Monument, roughly 29 minutes from Vernal and seven miles from Jensen. The monument straddles Utah and Colorado, and has several entrances. We took US Highway 40 in Jensen and Highway 149 north to the monument. I recommend getting the America the Beautiful Pass. However, the entrance fees are only $25 per car. I get the pass to save money since I visit several national parks every year.
Once in the Dinosaur National Monument, get ready to step into prehistoric times. A cannot-miss-spot is “The Wall of Bones.” Make sure to go to the Utah side to appreciate and interact with the more than 1,500 real fossils embedded in the cliff. That’s right, you are allowed to touch them! Brushing your fingers along dinosaur fossils is a unique experience, and kids love it! My 5th grader and preschooler touched every one that was reachable to them.
Continue your expedition by heading to the Quarry Exhibit Hall to see more fossils and footprints, including those of baby Stegosaurus, Allosaurus, and Apatosaurus.
To see petroglyphs, hop into your car and drive through The Tilted Rocks scenic route. Your first stop is Swelter Shelter. It is an easy 400-foot round trip. You will see human and animal-like figures such as snakes, lizards and bighorn sheep.
From there, head over to the Fremont petroglyphs at Rainbow Park and Island Park. If you love history like I do, you will giggle with excitement at this rich fountain of knowledge. Take advantage and teach your kids about petroglyphs and prehistory in a fun way. If you arrived at the monument in the morning, by now it is lunchtime. There are picnic areas, and you may spot wildlife, including rabbits, prairie dogs, and deer.
Those who fancy some adrenaline rush at the river will find it on the Colorado side of Dinosaur National Monument. The Yampa river goes through the monument, and it confluences with the Green River. Choose whatever your heart desires; a rafting tour, a tubing trip, or just relaxing and floating on the water.
The place boasts striking, beautiful scenery, which photographers, nature lovers, and adventurers rave about. If you want to wow your Facebook friends, take a picture of the river flowing through the canyon at sunset.
Last but not least, try night sky stargazing! According to Dinosaurland’s website, the International Dark Sky Association nominated Dinosaur National Monument as an international dark sky park. So, look up and have a romantic night. (Tip: Make sure to have enough space in your phone, or bring extra memory cards.)
I am a tourist who likes to mingle with the locals, so back in Vernal, I hit a pub, played pool with the residents, and enjoyed a craft beer. The local bar goers are chatty and friendly, and everybody seems to know everybody else. I went alone, but I didn’t spend a minute alone, because local folks regaled me with fun stories about Vernal and their lives.
As any foodie would do, we ate at different restaurants around the city to try their special dishes and indulge in local flavors. As small as Vernal is, it is packed with a wide array of restaurants, from ethnic, fancy, fast, vegetarian, wild game, bars, and breweries. Even my picky eater kids found something they liked.
Museums and Dinosaurs
Vernal has dinosaur replicas all over the city. Just off Main Street, Dinah, the pink dinosaur, stands 40-feet-tall and welcomes visitors with a huge smile. Take a picture with her! To see more dinos, head to Dinosaur Gardens located outside the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum. No reservation is needed and admittance is free. Here, you will encounter life-sized dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus Rex, three-horned Triceratops, squat Moschops, and many more. We brought a picnic and ate with the dinos.
Uintah County Heritage Museum is located at the heart of Main Street. Once again, you will feel transported back in time. Spread throughout the two floors are many Pioneer artifacts and unique historical objects from Vernal’s history.
McConkie Ranch Petroglyphs
We put on our Timberland boots and headed into the wild for more petroglyph sightseeing. McConkie Ranch Petroglyphs are 19 minutes shy of Vernal and located in Dry Fork Canyon. Both trails, the main one and the Three Kings, are filled with petroglyphs. The round trip distance is a moderate hike of only 1.2 miles. My 11-year-old and I beat my husband and my 5-year-old to the main trail! The view from the top is breathtaking, so we waited up there for them.
How to get there: From Vernal, drive north on Highway 121 and turn left onto N 500 W Street, then continue for 3.5 miles. Turn right onto 3500 W at the Dry Fork Canyon sign. Keep going for about 6.3 miles, then turn right at the McConkie Ranch sign. Admittance Is free.
Afterward, we went to Dinosaur Trackway. We arrived in the evening, but there was still plenty of light. We hiked, took pictures, and stopped to see fantastic rock formations. Night fell as we were about to arrive at the tracks. All too soon, the sun set and pitch darkness surrounded us. At first, we were okay, but we soon got lost and couldn’t find our way out. We kept going in circles since we couldn’t see the painted tracks that mark the trail. And our phones were about to die. To top it all off, heavy rain started falling and coyotes began to howl. My brave 5-year-old couldn’t hold it any longer and tears streamed down his little face. We called 911, and they rescued us. The funny thing was that once the police officer arrived and guided us to the entrance, we saw just how close we were.
Back at home, we told our friends about the adventure, and they too had gotten lost in the same place at night! Lesson learned. You will love the trail; just go earlier in the day.
On our final day, we went to an out-of-this-world place called Fantasy Canyon. It is off the beaten path, but worth every minute you’ll spend there. Spectacular rock formations will make you feel like you’re on another planet. Along the way, you’re bound to see wild horses and antelope.
Vernal has it all, for explorers and adventurers big and small.